TOKYO -- A growing Chinese military presence in the Sea of Japan is becoming an issue that Tokyo cannot overlook.
On Jan. 5, three Chinese naval vessels sailed through the Tsugaru Strait between Japan's main island and the northernmost island of Hokkaido into the Sea of Japan. Four days later, a Chinese air force fleet entered the sea by flying over the waters between the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula.
According to the Joint Staff of the Japanese Defense Ministry, the fleet consisted of six bombers, which are capable of carrying cruise missiles, an early warning aircraft and an intelligence-gathering plane. With an additional fighter jet as an escort and a refueling aircraft, the fleet could have been ready to bomb ground targets.
An even more consequential move by the Chinese military took place in February last year. A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol aircraft and an escort vessel spotted an unidentified submarine sailing underwater in the contiguous zone between Japan and South Korea and emerging in the East China Sea. The submarine was widely believed to be Chinese, although Japan's Defense Ministry did not confirm its country of origin. Sailing in a contiguous zone does not contravene international law as the area lies outside a country's territorial waters. Still, the ministry published the information in order to let the vessel's proprietor know it was being watched.
China has been busy placing military installations on reclaimed land around reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. In the East China Sea, Beijing is now able to put military pressure on Japan's Coast Guard and Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces more frequently. An advance into the Sea of Japan may be part of a new objective: to deploy submarine-launched ballistic missiles there.
China's military set to deploy Jin-class nuclear submarines capable of carrying SLBMs in the South China Sea. But the JL-2 missiles on these subs have a range of about 8,000km -- not enough to reach the U.S. mainland from the South China Sea. Moving into the Pacific Ocean to shorten the distance puts them within the range of U.S. naval vessels.
Thus, the Chinese military is believed to be developing a new class of submarines, known as the Type 096, and a new SLBM, JL-3, with a supposed range of up to 12,000km. If the missiles were deployed in the Sea of Japan, along with an escort fleet, it would be a reliable, if small, deterrent to American nuclear capabilities.
The problem is that China is not facing the Sea of Japan. Sailing under the Tsushima Strait would alert the SDFs, as became clear last February. For Beijing to deploy SLBMs in the waters, it needs a submarine base.
The Chinese military may be looking to build a base somewhere along North Korea's Sea of Japan coastline, likely Rason near the border with Russia, said a Japanese security expert. A base at Rason would allow Chinese submarines to dive deep underwater relatively quickly after launch to avoid detection. Part of the port has been leased to China on a long-term commercial contract.
I used to believe, it would be a long time before China gains a military foothold in the Sea of Japan. But not anymore.
U.S. President Donald Trump took a strong stance on North Korea during his first official meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this month. Led by former Marine commander James Mattis, the Pentagon appears anxious to remove the North Korean nuclear threat.
The U.S. may gradually boost its military presence in Northeast Asia ostensibly for exercises and suddenly move to put an end to the autocracy, an intelligence expert in Tokyo said. The U.S. Navy currently has two carrier strike groups deployed in the Western Pacific. If it adds a third, the expert noted, it should be taken as a sign that the possibility of a surprise attack has increased.
If the U.S. strikes first, China will not just sit and watch. It will probably try to seize as much North Korean territory as possible, including Rason, and set up a fourth northeastern province. Or it might opt to install a puppet regime in Pyongyang, which would be much easier to control than the regime led by Kim Jong Un.
Whether the killing of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia this month has any direct link to China's military advance in the Sea of Japan is unclear. But North Korea knows that the Chinese military's Central Command, which protects areas including Beijing, has been conducting exercises on a regular basis to prepare for a possible surge into North Korea should things go awry in the country.